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Thursday, March 23, 2023


As the Drake's Seat vendors saga entered its second year, the full Senate voted Monday to override Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto of a bill allowing vendors to return and set up shop at the overlook.
"They had no authority to issue such a measure," said Wheaton estate attorney William McConnell. The Wheaton family and the attorney general say the estate owns the land at Drake's Seat. The vendors claim the government owns the property. The matter is still being litigated in District Court.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen sponsored the original bill, which was hastily passed in the 23rd Legislature's final session Dec. 21, 2000, and rushed to the governor at Hansen's request. The governor didn't veto the bill until Jan. 26, when District Court Judge Thomas K. Moore suspended a 1985 preliminary injunction by the court that barred the V.I. government from evicting vendors from Drake's Seat.
Hansen moved early in Monday's session to override the governor's veto, and she had no problem finding support. Much to the delight of a group of cheering vendors in the gallery, the measure passed 11-4.
McConnell said, "The Wheatons are flabbergasted. They cannot imagine that any jurisdiction under the U.S. flag could condone this sort of specialized legislation.
"It's like basically saying to one group, 'You may go onto the property of another and open business and destroy the aesthetic value of the property.'"
Hansen said, "The owners of the Wheaton estate haven't been able to prove it's their land. No court has said that it doesn't belong to the Virgin Islands, nor has any court said it does belong to the Wheatons."
Sens. Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton, Vargrave Richards and Roosevelt David voted no. David said, "There is no basis on which to override this. I won't change my vote." He noted the court is expected to rule in the matter in about 11 days.
An override of a veto automatically becomes law without the governor's signature. The governor is off-island, and could not be reached for comment Monday. James O'Bryan, the governor's assistant, said he would refer the matter to the office's legal counsel.
Berry said she did not want "misinformation" to go on record. She said, "The legal opinion from the Attorney General's Office was that the measure should be vetoed." Berry said she would abide by that decision. "I'm voting my conscience."
Attorney General Iver Stridiron, speaking on WVWI Radio One late Monday afternoon, said he was "astonished" at the Legislature's move.
The estate of the late Homer Wheaton granted an easement to the V.I. government in the late 1940s to build the overlook on the property. The easement forbids commercial activity there, but vendors have found it to be a lucrative spot with a captive clientele as safari taxis disgorge scores of tourists. The number of vendors has more than doubled since the mid-'90s when there were just a half-dozen or so.
Beginning in March 2000, representatives of the Wheaton estate have sought to have the vendors moved, citing the prohibition on commercial activity as well as traffic and safety issues at the overlook, which is often nearly gridlocked during the day.
McConnell said, "The (Wheaton) trust was under the impression that the Virgin Islands had more respect for private property. The matter is in District Court now and there's no telling when they will act. The trust will take whatever action necessary to maintain its right to exclude commercial activity from the easement."
"The alternative," McConnell said, "is that nobody can use the easement ultimately if the government steadfastly continues to promote the right of 12 people to do business on somebody else's land over the right of the property owners."
Vendor Hector Rios was beaming as he stood in the Legislature corridor. "I'm happy they gave me my life back," he said. "I'll sure be up there tomorrow."

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